The 2019 Ofsted Inspection Framework is live, but schools still face uncertainty about what “deep dives”, a “top level view” and scrutinising “curriculum intent” mean for inspection. John Pearce offers his translation, as well as practical activities for senior leaders and governors to ensure they’re ready.

theirImbuing old words with new meanings is always risky. Whilst the English teacher in me applauds new language to encourage new thinking, we need to interpret fresh phrases carefully.

This is especially true of Ofsted’s choice of words and phrases in the new framework, in particular “curriculum intent” and “deep dives”. Ofsted’s insistence that inspectors will not look at raw data sounds good in theory, but do we take it at face value? What does it mean in plain English?

I don’t believe Ofsted is asking schools to do anything radically different. Maybe we just need to think wider and deeper about curriculum intent, implementation and impact, So, what to do?

The first thing is to look at what the Ofsted framework actually says and what senior HMIs have said. At the National Governance Association conference in June, Ofsted chief Amanda Speilman said: “I hope the new EIF will enable you to lift your eyes up to the big, strategic picture that you need to be involved in, rather than drawing you down towards reams of data.”

The “big picture” is clearly about curriculum intent and echoes older phrases like: “matters to be taught” (2000s); “the sum of all learning in school” (1990s) and “aims for the curriculum” (1970s).

She also stressed the importance of reducing teacher workload. “If we find that a school’s system for data collection is disproportionate or unsustainable for staff, we’ll reflect this in our inspection report and it could affect the grade that is given…”

She continued: “Instead of looking at spreadsheets, inspectors will go into classrooms to talk to pupils and teachers and look at examples of work to see the impact of the curriculum.”

This is a good description of “deep dives” and underlines the importance of looking for wider qualitative evidence and teacher assessment in order to measure curriculum impact.

The big picture

The message from Ofsted is clear and, in my view, simple and overdue. Schools are being prompted to be clear about what they intend to teach and for what purpose.

This doesn’t necessarily mean they need to change what they’re doing but it might mean they need to be sharper about describing it and especially how they measure progress beyond standard data.

Here is my interpretation:

Curriculum intent is about what schools intend to teach and why. This will be in the vision and purpose (mission, aims, objectives). Curriculum has always been about knowledge, skills and understanding – so much more than teaching to external tests. So, intent should include values, attitudes and behaviours. It’s always useful for senior leadership teams, including governors, plus staff and stakeholders, to revisit, remind and reaffirm – but not necessarily reinvent – their vision and purpose.

Curriculum implementation is about how to operationalise intent. It’s about programmes of study, plus pedagogy, so it includes both content and processes. It’s the way staff in school encourage and develop the knowing, understanding and doing that pupils need. It’s more than the timetable and syllabi, it’s pupils’ total experience in and around school.

Curriculum impact is about whether pupils are gaining the knowledge, skills and understanding that is intended. It is about measuring their capacity to perform but doing so in effective and efficient ways and not overloading teachers. What progress are pupils making from where they were on entry to where they’ll be on leaving? So, yes, it is more than test scores.

Plan – review – do

The new Ofsted framework will look for curriculum intent first in a ‘top-level view’ involving interviews with the headteacher, governors and senior staff. Inspectors will undertake ‘deep dives’ into classrooms and the wider school to look at how the intent is implemented and whether it leads to progress. Finally, in their reporting, they will ‘bring it together’ in their judgement of the school’s effectiveness.

This intent-implementation-impact is an update of the classic review-plan-do cycle of learning and improvement on which the iAbacus was built. The difference being that iAbacus is for those IN school to drive their own improvement.

It follows that “deep dives” are the new “action research” as we interrogate the cycle. Crucially, looking for qualitative measures to sit alongside quantitative will lead schools to a more balanced evaluation of learning, as it was before SAT results and league tables skewed the way schools are judged.

Activities for senior teams and governors

So, what can senior teams, alongside governors, do to respond to this new focus? Here are three simple activities. Each can be a desk-top exercise or discussion, critically thinking through the task. If needed, groups can go into further detail with action research and deep dives.

The activities are not intended to be onerous and are best seen as self-evaluating the cycle of school improvement. Each is about building a cycle of evaluation into day to day practice. It’s about looking at what you do with a view to doing it better.

1. Intent.

Start by reviewing what you write, say and publish about your school’s vision. Look at your aims statement, brochure and website. Are these clear, unambiguous and straight forward, or over-complex? Does the language work for all audiences? Do you need to tighten them, or precis them, if only to remind stakeholders of purpose? I have written about Vision Walks – a powerful way to double check and update the school vision – here: https://www.iabacus.co.uk/vision-walk/.

Key question: How many leaders, teachers, pupils and parents/carers can verbalise our curriculum intent succinctly?

2. Implementation and impact.

A great way to link intent through to impact is to undertake a tracking exercise. Take an aim from your vision and track it from “where we plan to teach it/encourage it” through, “looking at an example in action” to asking, “how are we measuring impact” and, “have we made progress?”

Key question: Are we doing what we say we are doing and is it effective?

The example tracking exercise I’ve included here is from The Evaluation of Pastoral Care, Clemmett and Pearce, Blackwells, 1986 and demonstrates an old truth: “If you stand still long enough you’ll eventually become an innovator”.

I designed it to measure what the 1975 DES Assessment and Performance Unit argued were, “areas in the affective domain which are difficult, if not impossible, to assess”. It allows for both quantitative, raw data and qualitative measures and works equally well for traditional curriculum content in STEM areas. So, it’s timely for the new Ofsted framework!

3. Combining Intent, implementation and impact.

It’s important to link all this thinking together strategically, in a cycle of improvement. My involvement in extensive school improvement and curriculum research from 1974 to 2014 led me to create a model of improvement that encourages individual, team and whole school self-evaluation, against detailed criteria, in order to plan strategically.

It starts with the professional teacher or leader’s view, and only then introduces criteria, evidence and data. Why? Because we want front colleagues to be professional developers. One activity is to apply the model https://www.iabacus.co.uk/model/ because it fits the intent-implementation-impact cycle perfectly.

Key question: How do we self-evaluate and plan strategically?


Regardless of whether the school is due an inspection, it is always a good idea for governing bodies and leadership teams to take time to reflect, analyse, and evaluate, and if needed, refocus.

I believe it was never Ofsted’s intent for schools to radically alter what they do in response to the new framework. Rather it’s about focussing inspection on the elements that really matter in giving our children the best chance of success.

John Pearce was previously a teacher and senior leader, then Deputy Chief Inspector in Nottinghamshire. After several executive and interim headships in special measures schools, he was appointed an NCTL Leadership Consultant and Lead Facilitator. He is now a chair of governors. He created iAbacus with Dan O’Brien in 2012.